Retiring owner hoping to keep African-American radio station local

Retiring owner hoping to keep African-American radio station local

URBANA — At 85, longtime businessman J.W. Pirtle is ready to retire.

The former Champaign City Council member is hoping to find a local buyer for his radio station, WBCP 1580-AM.

"I want to keep the community attached to it as long as I can, although if a buyer outside the community wants to buy, he gets to buy it," Pirtle said. "But other than that, I'd like to keep some community touch on it."

Along with Vernon Barkstall and Lonnie Clark, Pirtle helped found the radio station in 1989, converting it from a country-western music format.

"We made it to urban, contemporary music, and gospel," Pirtle said. "There wasn't any talk shows when we got it, and we started doing talk shows. We pretty well changed it all around."

He said they didn't expect to get rich from running a radio station.

"We were told to not expect that we're going to get rich, to just go in there and do a good job and be proud of having something that you're doing for the community, and that's what we did," Pirtle said.

Mike Haile, WDWS 1400-AM's general manager, called WBCP a "rare jewel."

"There are very few African-American-owned radio stations in the country, and there's less and less," he said.

"And it would not have happened if it had not been for three guys who had a great love for this community and have contributed in so many ways," Haile said. "This is an opportunity to give the African-American community a robust voice in the marketplace."

At one point, being a minority-owned radio station wasn't as big a deal, Pirtle said.

"When we first bought it, we didn't think too much of it because there were a lot of them," he said. "But now you just say, 'Oh, well,' because Father Time is taking 'em out one at a time. There use to be one in Peoria, Springfield, East St. Louis, Rockford. They're all gone."

But WBCP has survived, drawing crowds to Douglass Park for Champaign-Urbana Days and providing a home for gospel music.

"We used to put two or three thousand people in the park to listen to a live show," Pirtle said. "Most all the churches would come out to do church music Friday evening, and Saturday it was all dancing and rhythm and blues."

He said minority churches have been WBCP's "backbone" over the years.

"It's a real positive image on the community," Pirtle said. "Because most everybody in the community knows that WBCP is going to have gospel seven days a week, and if you want to hear gospel, that's the station you're probably going to listen to, to find it."

Pirtle, who grew up in Tennessee, came to Champaign-Urbana on his way to Milwaukee.

"I have a sister who lives here, and I stopped to see her," he said. "I was only here for a couple days, and I ended up getting a job."

He served in the Korean War, owned a Shell station for eight years beginning in 1960 and ran various companies over the years, including a cab company and a restaurant and bar.

But he's enjoyed running the radio station the most.

"I would say radio is probably my favorite one. Second in line is the Central Cab Company," he said. "I like music."

Pirtle said it has been important to have a radio station focused on the black community.

"Minority people in Champaign County haven't had something they can really put their hands on and say, 'This is a part of our community,' and yet they can do that with WBCP because it's been here for 28 years," he said.

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